What Netflix’s Cheer Teaches Us about College Admissions

Originally published January 27, 2020

(Slight spoilers ahead)

Fifteen minutes into Netflix’s new sports documentary, Cheer, and I was lost in admiration for the athleticism of the young people on the screen. Four or five hours in, I realized it was so much more. 

If you haven’t seen this latest cultural phenomenon, what you need to know is this: Cheer is a 6-hour Netflix docuseries, showcasing the championship cheerleading team from Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. And perhaps also you should know this: people are obsessed.  From Reese Witherspoon to Gabrielle Union to vast numbers of Twitter users, this show speaks volumes beyond hairbows and split kicks. Caught up in the sensation, here’s one more lesson we can learn on the mat.

All season long, we hear that the only thing that matters to these students is the 2 minutes and 15 seconds at Daytona. All the sweat is aimed towards those brief moments of perfection. No spoilers here, but man, the Daytona episode is pretty intense. Actually, there might be some spoilers, but I will try to be careful. Here’s the thing: the show also shows us with every jump, every tear, every ice pack that it’s not about Daytona. Long before we know if these students will walk away with a championship banner, we know that they have learned how to walk forward proudly – with grace and dignity – from the challenges and hardships everyone finds on their journey.

When Cheer favorite Jerry Harris talks about losing his mother to cancer, I hear a young woman crying in my office ten years ago because the Breast Cancer Awareness Month presentation she had been working on wasn’t being taken seriously by her friends. None of them knew that she had lost her own mother to the disease. As difficult as it is to share these kinds of personal struggles, Jerry tells his friends – his “Cheer family,” as he calls them – about every bit of his struggle in losing his mother at 16. Even through tragedy, he finds the strength to stay in school and in competition. Surrounded by support, he is reminded by his teammates and coaches that his mom is always watching and that he is loved.

Other students share heartbreaking stories of abuse and neglect – stories that our culture often uses to label a young person as a victim or statistic. But these young people found their strength on the mat. Indeed, their physical feats – accomplished while also attending college classes, maintaining high GPAs and earning degrees – demonstrate remarkable talent and skill. 

So, Katy, how is this about college admissions (you might ask)?

The Navarro Dawgs prepare to kill it in Daytona by digging deeper into discovering who they are, both individually and as a team. We watch them share stories of hope, stories of insight, embarrassing moments (seriously, Morgan, POINT your TOES), and as they learn to rely on one another. Even after the remarkable success of the show, they’re still modeling this kind of reflection and growth. Gabi Butler, the Instagram-famous cheerleader, told Ellen Degeneres that watching the show with her family made her and her parents realize she was ready for more responsibility and independence. 

These kinds of insights – that’s what education is about. It’s also what colleges are asking you to think about when you write your college essay and launch your application process.

If the Cheer season was a college essay, the point is NOT what happens at Daytona. The point is the tears as La’Darius’s brother watches him perform. La’Darius Marshall’s essay is not about the muscle and the adrenaline. It’s about facing his fears, realizing he needs others, learning to be proud of who he is. Morgan’s college essay is not about her fearlessness needed in a basket. It’s about overcoming monumental neglect and earning her degrees. Her multiple degrees, in fact, when statistics predicted that she’d never see the inside of a college classroom. 

In the admissions process, we often fool ourselves with the same kinds of misleading cues. We think that the college process, and indeed ALL of high school, only exists for that one college acceptance, those two minutes on the mat. But if we let ourselves focus on the end, we lose sight of the incredible gifts along the journey.

The years between 13 and 18 are full of amazing growth and opportunities. So sure, keep your eye on the prize, but also focus on the growth, the friends, the challenges, and the triumphs.

And perhaps most importantly, it would help us to remember that, maybe, what every high school senior needs along the road to college is some solid Mat Talk

You Got This! Kick It! You ROCK! I BELIEVE IN YOU!